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Wednesday, February 28, 2024
Feb. 28, 2024

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‘Money talks’: DeSantis goes after small-scale voter crimes, is silent on FPL and Matrix


SOUTH BAY, Fla. — Leo Grant Jr. couldn’t stomach the bologna sandwich that guards offered him at a Palm Beach County jail on the morning of Aug. 18.

Grant hadn’t faced prison food since 2004, and he couldn’t believe he now found himself shackled and then locked up — for the crime of voting.

“That was a disgrace to me,” said Grant, 55. “I’m a law-abiding citizen. I ain’t been to prison in 18 years.”

But at a campaign-style event later that day, Gov. Ron DeSantis denounced Grant and 19 other Floridians who had registered to vote and then cast ballots despite previous convictions for murder or felony sexual offenses that made them ineligible. “They’re going to pay the price,” said DeSantis, who left Florida the next day for a fundraising trip to Pennsylvania and Ohio, two swing states critical to his expected presidential run in 2024, where he again touted the arrests.

After spending three hours in jail, Grant returned to his South Bay apartment, 25 feet from the railroad tracks, in the impoverished heart of Florida’s sugar-growing country. He’s now facing five years in prison.

The charges mark what DeSantis called “the opening salvo” of his new Office of Elections Crimes and Security, which was set up on July 1 to investigate and prosecute election fraud.

“This is just the first step; there’s many more in the pipeline,” said DeSantis, standing behind a lectern that said “Election Integrity.”

While the governor and his new election police force have targeted people like Grant, most of them Black, they have not similarly condemned or taken action against complex schemes intended to manipulate Florida elections and linked to one of the state’s most powerful corporations.

Over the past year, Juno Beach-based Florida Power & Light — a multibillion-dollar company headquartered 43 miles east and a world away from Grant’s small home — has been the subject of a torrent of news stories revealing how its political consultants funneled money through nonprofit groups and shell companies to manipulate elections and finance attacks on the utility’s political foes.

Election law experts told the Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times the payments were a potential violation of state campaign finance laws that ban the use of straw donors to shield the true source of campaign funds, as well as federal tax rules for nonprofits.

When asked whether those schemes would be investigated by the Office of Election Crimes and Security, Mark Ard, spokesperson for the office, said: “Violations of campaign financing … are generally referred to the Florida Elections Commission.’’

Among the recipients of the funds was DeSantis’ 2018 campaign. According to leaked documents, his political committee received $25,000, channeled through a nonprofit that didn’t have to reveal its donors.

Going after individuals with little means — several of whom told the Herald/Times they had no idea they were breaking the law — while not prosecuting sophisticated attempts to subvert democratic processes is “reprehensible,” said Marvin Dunn, president of the Miami Center for Racial Justice at Barry University and a historian of race and civil rights in Florida.

“Powerful people rigging elections is far more dangerous than 20 people allegedly voting illegally,” Dunn said in an interview. “But power gets you privileges and exceptions that don’t apply to the rest of us. Money talks. Money is power. The people who’ve been charged with voter fraud have no power. … DeSantis is making them into props for his reelection campaign and his bid for president.”

Dunn noted that county election offices had processed and accepted voter registration forms for Grant and the others without flagging them as ineligible, and that the state signed off.

Unlike the voters who said they didn’t understand the law, FPL’s executives and political consultants were clearly aware of the need to cloak their activities, according to a trove of documents leaked to the Herald/Times and other news organizations.

The documents come from inside Matrix, an Alabama-based political consulting firm that worked for FPL until last year. They reveal an operation carefully choreographed with a consistent goal: Take down elected officials who stood in the way of FPL’s interests — without disclosing the company as the source of the funds and leaving enough distance to allow FPL, its high-level managers and its chief executive to deny involvement.

Emails show Matrix officials setting up friends and family as operators of nonprofit groups and then directing the nonprofits’ use as pipelines for campaign contributions.

Previous leaks to the Orlando Sentinel and the Florida Times-Union documented how Matrix, while in the employ of FPL, blew past ethical boundaries, including having a Times-Union journalist tailed by a private investigator and pumping resources into the campaigns of “spoiler candidates “ geared to siphon votes from FPL’s political opponents.

In one case, records show that Matrix worked to support a candidate with the same last name as a Democratic incumbent, José Javier Rodríguez, in an apparent effort to sow confusion, redirect votes and help a Republican win his Miami state Senate seat.

After reading a news story about a bill sponsored by Rodríguez that threatened FPL’s hold on the state solar-energy market, Eric Silagy, chairman and CEO of FPL, gave his top executives a clear order: “I want you to make his life a living hell….seriously,’’ he wrote in a Jan. 7, 2019, email.

The executives immediately forwarded the message to Matrix’s CEO, according to the documents leaked to the Herald/Times and other news organizations. The next year, Matrix directed the transfer of $550,000 that in part paid for mailers backing the unknown challenger, Alexis Pedro Rodriguez, an auto parts dealer with no party affiliation. Despite not actively campaigning in the 2020 contest, Alexis Pedro Rodriguez received 6,300 votes. José Javier Rodríguez lost to the Republican in the race by 32.

Alexis Pedro Rodriguez was one of three alleged “ghost candidates” in the 2020 cycle whose campaigns were apparently designed to siphon votes from Democrats running for the Florida Senate. He has since pleaded guilty to two felony election law violations and is cooperating with prosecutors in a case brought by local authorities.

FPL has denied it had anything to do with its consultants’ efforts to secretly influence that or other races and says it follows all campaign finance laws. The power company has said documents tying it to Matrix election schemes “could easily be fabricated” and has refused to comment on them.

“Regarding our corporate political contributions, we require that they comply with all applicable laws,” said David Reuter, a spokesman for FPL.

A lawyer for Jeff Pitts, CEO of Matrix at the time of the activities in question, blamed the accusations on Matrix founder Joe Perkins.

“These accusations are false, tiresome and a continuation of his slander and libelous attacks,” the lawyer said. Perkins and Pitts, who left Matrix to form his own company that then took FPL’s business from Matrix, were engaged in a bitter legal battle that was finally settled last week.

Saurav Ghosh, director of federal campaign finance reform at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C., said that under the state and federal ban on straw donors, individuals and corporations are prohibited from making political donations with the explicit intention of hiding themselves as the true source.

Matrix and FPL’s apparent intent to use “financial resources to defeat a candidate without any disclosure to the public” would potentially violate such laws, he said. “That’s election rigging.”

Grant, who was investigated by DeSantis’ new elections office, was among several arrested felons who told the Herald/Times they did not realize they were breaking the law.

Voter registration forms ask individuals to affirm that they are not felons — or if they were convicted of felonies to affirm that their rights have been restored. All of those arrested had served their time and on the forms incorrectly indicated that their right to vote had been restored. The state says their right to cast ballots would not have been restored because their previous convictions for murder or felony sexual offenses barred them from the voter system.

They are now facing two third-degree felony counts: submitting false voter registration information and voting as an unqualified elector in the 2020 election .

The governor’s political opponents say no matter what happens between now and November, the arrests of Grant and others send a chilling message to former felons, even if they are eligible to cast ballots.

“Folks are going to be scared to vote,” Grant said.

‘Selective enforcement’

DeSantis, a Republican, proposed Florida’s 25-person Office of Election Crimes and Security a year ago, as he attempted to quell calls from Donald Trump supporters for the state to conduct an audit in response to baseless claims of a stolen election.

During the 2022 lawmaking session, Florida’s Republican-led Legislature created a slimmed-down version of the election police force within the Florida Department of State and tasked it “with investigating all election crimes in Florida.”

Daniel Smith, a University of Florida political science professor and frequent critic of the state’s enforcement of elections law, said authorities “have chosen to selectively enforce the law.”

Smith said the decision to go after “confused” former felons like Grant, but not powerful political consultants, whose efforts shifted thousands of votes away from FPL’s political foes, is an intentional choice by the DeSantis administration.

“It’s using the power of the state to selectively go after certain allegations of wrongdoing and turning a blind eye to ones where there’s actually more evidence of wrongdoing,’’ he said. “It just so happens they are targeting categories that tend to be more likely to involve minority voters and Democratic voters. The rules are not being applied uniformly across the state.”

Of the 19 people arrested on charges of election fraud, 12 are registered Democrats, four registered with no party affiliation and three registered as Republicans, according to a Herald/Times analysis of voter registration data. (As of this past weekend, one person had been charged but not yet arrested.)

Asked if the governor prioritized arrests of individual voters over examining more organized forms of election malfeasance and campaign finance violations, DeSantis spokesman Bryan Griffin did not answer the question.

“As Gov. DeSantis has been repeatedly clear on the importance of election integrity, it should follow that it is well worthwhile to dedicate the necessary resources to accomplishing this.’’

He did not respond to a request to elaborate and clarify if election integrity includes the enforcement of campaign finance laws.

Fraud in the Villages

Hidden campaign finance schemes tied to FPL consultants at Matrix are not the only potentially illegal organized efforts that have not resulted in any action by the state as it vows to go after election fraud.

No charges have been filed against Republican Party canvassers who, according to a Herald/Times investigation, switched the party affiliations of more than 100 elderly Miami-Dade residents to Republican without their consent.

And a state Ethics Commission recommendation in October that the governor impose a $20,000 fine against Alexis Pedro Rodriguez — the Matrix-backed “spoiler” in the Miami state Senate race — still awaits action by Gov. DeSantis 11 months later.

Meanwhile, a series of arrests this past year in the conservative retirement community of The Villages involved local residents who voted twice in 2020 — once in Florida and again in a different state. The case was handled by the local state attorney before the state formed the Office of Election Crimes, which is currently relying on agents detached from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to do investigations.

The three people arrested — all between the ages of 63 and 71, all registered Republicans — admitted to the crime.

Prosecutors offered them plea deals that will leave them with clean records — and presumably the right to vote. They must first perform 50 hours of community service and get a grade of C or better in an adult civics class, according to court records. A fourth Villages resident was arrested in January on similar charges.

Grant and others arrested on the day of DeSantis’ news conference have few resources and fear they won’t get off so easily.

“I ain’t got no damn money for a lawyer,” said Grant, who is disabled and has diabetes and a pacemaker.

Records show he had stayed out of prison since 2004, when he finished a five-year stint for lewd assault. He teared up last week thinking about what his return to incarceration might do to his three sons — twins aged 14 and a 6-year-old.

Grant, who earned his GED in 2010, said he received a voter registration form in the mail unsolicited in 2020. He said he had no idea he was barred from voting and that he read the form over quickly before filling it out.

He then had his application approved, received a voter registration card back in the mail, and was able to vote in the 2020 election.

“They sent the voter registration card to me. That was their error and their mistake,’’ said Grant, referring to the government. “It’s like a set-up. They made the mistake, but they are going to punish me.”

Who’s at fault?

Mixed messaging has contributed to the confusion, arrests and convictions over voting in Florida.

In 2018, Florida voters amended the state constitution to end Florida’s lifetime ban on voting for felons — with 64% casting ballots in favor of the ballot initiative. The measure specifically excluded those who had been convicted of murder, sexual assault and criminal sexual behavior.

The Legislature responded by requiring that felons who completed their sentences first pay all fees owed in relation to their crimes. The formerly incarcerated soon learned that there is no centralized location where they could learn what, if anything, they owed.

In a 2020 interview with the Herald/Times and ProPublica, then-Secretary of State Laurel Lee, a DeSantis appointee, said under state law it was her office’s responsibility to screen felons wishing to vote and to inform county supervisors which individuals were ineligible.

At the time Grant and the other 19 people filled out their registration applications, the state backlog to determine eligibility of felons was enormous. Until that backlog could be cleared, former felons should be considered “eligible voters,” Lee said in the Oct. 5, 2020, interview.

At a news conference, DeSantis contradicted that view, saying the responsibility lies with county elections officials. Lee is no longer the secretary of state, having been replaced in May by Cord Byrd, a former Republican state lawmaker.

Sometimes government agencies have worked at cross-purposes. In July 2020, the Alachua County Supervisor of Elections conducted a series of voter registration drives in the county jail to encourage felons who had completed their terms to register. Two years later, Alachua prosecutors charged 10 of those who registered with fraud, after a local resident reviewed the voter rolls and complained.

When the governor announced the first arrests by his election police office late last month, he brought with him his recently announced choice to run it, Pete Antonacci, a Tallahassee lawyer and former Broward Supervisor of Elections.

“This is a special day for those of you who observe elections over the years, because this is the day that we began taking fraud seriously,’’ Antonacci said as he and the governor stood in front of a row of green-uniformed sheriff’s deputies in a Fort Lauderdale courtroom.

Four of those arrested were registered to vote and sent voter ID cards from the Broward elections office when Antonacci was in charge of it.

Early morning arrest

Larry S. Davis, a Miami attorney, represents one of the suspects arrested on Aug. 18. He said that several officers arrived at the Opa-locka home of his client at 6 a.m., flashing searchlights.

“There were a number of officers both in his front and back yard with semi-automatic rifles,’’ Davis said. “They banged on the front and back doors. He came to the front door in his underwear. He said: ‘Can I put my clothes on?’ They said, ‘No,’ and they took him to jail.”

Like the others arrested, Davis’ client had served time for one of the crimes specifically excluded from reinstatement by the amendment passed by voters. The 20 charged were between the ages of 41 and 72 and had completed a voter registration form and received a voter ID card from county elections officials. Their 20 ballots were among 11.1 million cast in Florida in 2020.

Davis said his client registered to vote while at a Walmart. He told volunteers he couldn’t vote because of his background, but was told that the statewide referendum to restore felons’ rights had passed, the lawyer said.

“Next, he got a voter’s card and thought he was good to go,” said Davis, who asked that his client not be named so he doesn’t lose his job. “Now he’s in this mess.”

A similar pattern played out in the arrests touted by the governor. According to the arresting documents, FDLE arrived at the homes or workplaces of the suspects, questioned them about whether they had voted, verified their signatures on voter registration cards, and, according to several individuals, did not tell them why they were under investigation. Then, on the day of the governor’s announcement, sheriff’s deputies arrived for the arrests.

David Weinstein, a Miami criminal defense attorney and former state and federal prosecutor, said a better approach would have been to give suspects a notice to appear and allow them to come in voluntarily.

“It sounds like they would lead them down the golden path and then they get an admission and a confession, and they get them to acknowledge that all of that is true and they met every element of the crime and they do not afford them an opportunity to self surrender … but rather they show up at their door at zero-dark-30 because they’ve gone to a judge and obtained an arrest warrant and take them into custody,’’ he said.

“That is in fact how law enforcement would like to do it,” he said. “That is not the way the system is supposed to operate.”

J.C. Planas, a Miami elections lawyer and former state prosecutor, said he had seen no evidence that the voters knew they were breaking the law and he described the cases as “almost like entrapment.”

“If you’re the state and you’re going to write rules saying these folks cannot register, and then you register them and mail them a voter card, the state has given up its right to prosecute,” he said. “I would not doubt that very quietly after the November election, these cases are dropped … because they’re not going to be able to prove them in court.”

Planas added: “The prosecutors have a turd of a case.”

‘Nothing to hide’

Robert Simpson, who was released from prison two decades ago, said he felt “blessed” after registering to vote at Anquan Boldin Stadium, the high school football field in Pahokee, in 2019.

“Anytime you can get some of your rights back, that feels good,” said Simpson, 64, who lost his voting rights when he was convicted of second-degree murder in 1992.

Simpson said volunteers at the voter drive filled out a registration form for him. No one told him he might be among those not eligible to vote.

After he got his voter card in the mail, he cast the first ballot of his life at the Belle Glade public library in the 2020 elections. He became a reliable voter, casting ballots in two subsequent special elections.

That was that — until Aug. 10, when a special agent with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement showed up at Simspon’s small Pahokee home, nestled between fields of sugarcane.

The agent wanted to ask him about voting. Simpson said he didn’t know why.

“I got nothing to hide,” said Simpson, who didn’t graduate from high school but earned a GED in 1975. “I told him that I voted. I showed him all the paperwork.”

The agent never acknowledged he was investigating Simpson for a crime, but did say he might have to “be in touch again” later on, Simpson said.

Eight days later, hours before the governor’s scheduled news conference, deputies with the Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office pulled Simpson over as he drove the van for the air conditioning business where he works as a helper. The deputies told him he was being arrested for election fraud and took him to jail.

“It felt terrible going back in there, I didn’t do nothing,’’ he said last week. He didn’t even understand why he’d been arrested until after he paid his $200 bond and saw a news story naming him.

Days later, Simpson said a new voter registration form showed up in his mail. He tore it up and threw it out.

He has a September court date. That’s just before the sugarcane burning season, when his home is sometimes coated in dust and foul-smelling smoke from the fields.

Simpson said he never would have voted had he known he was breaking the law.

“Out of all the things in the world, voting?” he said. “I ain’t getting nothing for myself for voting.”